Rocker George Thorogood stays true to his roots
The road never ends for George Thorogood, and he likes it that way. The “Bad to the Bone” slide guitarist and his Destroyers have entered their fifth decade, and are currently touring in support of the release of the original mix of his 1977 Rounder Records debut, George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers. Thorogood’s not one to look back though; all he needs a Gibson ES-125 hollow body guitar, his loyal backing band and the fans for whom his brand of blues never gets old.
How are you?
(Laughs) You’re always bad. I found a website with a lot of old stories about you and the writers often mentioned you’re response to that questions was “Bad.”
Well, you can believe everything you read!
I was just sitting down to listen to George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers when they called me to push the interview forward. I only got through “You Got to Lose,” but what a sound that is! It’s amazing.
Thank you. You think it’s amazing?
What I like about it is how, without your bassist there, it sounded like your drummer was compensating and it gave it this real cool vintage sound. Sounded like something out of Chess Records or something.
Well, it was Rounder Records, and their budget was, to say the least, conservative when it came to making record and production and all that sort of thing. A lot of the sound you’re getting was not intentional. It was economical.
I know you’re not one to look backward, but did this record cause you to reflect on the beginning of your career?
Well, we needed an album, Matt. We were spinning our wheels, playing the same places over and over. I knew we weren’t going to get any farther than the local bar unless we got a record out, and everyone was coming to the gigs wanting a record. I couldn’t get a record label interested, and Rounder said, “Maybe.” I pressured them for about six months, and by that time we went through two or three bass players. When they finally got around to agreeing to record us, there was only two of us. We didn’t have a bass player. We had just lost another bass player, so we got the original rhythm guitar player on and begged him—I did a lot of begging in those days, Matt, a lot of begging—to come up to Boston and play with me to get this record done, to get it out there. And then we overdubbed the bass on top of it because we knew that “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” was our ticket to wherever we were gonna go next, the next move, and we couldn’t go any farther without this record. We knew “Bourbon Scotch and Beer” was our song, the song that was gonna break us. ’Course I was the only one who understood this. (laughs). Our fans, they did. After a while they gave up asking for an album and they were coming to gigs with tape recorders, like the Grateful Dead. I said, “Maybe we can get into the tape recorder business, and sell tape recorders at the door instead of selling records. It was a very frustrating time for me.”
I wasn’t aware about how difficult things were for you back then in the time leading up to this recording until I read up on you for this interview. You really earned your blues credentials.
Well, whatever I learned I learned the hard way, let me tell you.
How long did it take for you to start using a slide after you started playing guitar?
Was it difficult or did it feel pretty natural?
Not really, it’s something that came pretty natural to me. Just took me a little time to get around to it. If I had known I would have picked up on it that quick I would have started earlier.
Was the secret learning open [tuned to a chord] tunings?
Well, I was fooling around with a guitar here and there. I think I was at a party and started playing and people jumped up and said, “Hey, man, you should be playing that guitar. You sound pretty good on that thing.” Before that I had been spinning my wheels, doing a bad imitation of Paul Butterfield, Eric Burdon and things like that. I’d never even gave the guitar much thought, and then when I started doing that I had enough encouragement around me. And I said, “Well, you’re sure not going to make it on your songwriting, which you’re not doing, and you don’t have the vocal range of Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant. Maybe you can get this guitar thing together. Besides, the style of guitar I was working on was very much in vogue. Ry Cooder and Duane Allman and Johnny Winter and Bonnie Raitt, John Hammond, Elvin Bishop— hey were all playing in that style, and they were all big underground hits. I knew I could make a living doing that if I stuck with it.
What kind of slide do you like to use? It looks like you were using a piece of copper on your recent Today Show appearance.
I use a piece of copper.
Do you hold on to favorite slides or do you take a lot of them on the road.
No, I have a lot of spares. Besides, copper is soft. Eventually it wears down.
Why do you prefer the sound you get from copper? Did you start with that?
It was cheap, and I saw Muddy Waters use one. I think he was the first person I ever saw use a copper slide. I like the sound of it better. The glass slide sounds too thin to me, and those heavy-duty ones people use, those chrome ones, it’s too clear a sound. The copper has a little gruffer sound to it. Plus it’s light, so I can move around on the guitar real fast. I was always afraid the glass would break and cut my finger. If that would happen it would happen to me.
You champion a lot of songs. You’re kind of a song preservationist, but you’re also an unsung hero when it comes to open tunings. Do you mostly use open G or are there other tunings you use as well.
G and D are the only ones I use.
“Bad to the Bone” is in G right?
What songs do you play that are in D?
Oh, a lot of them. “Bourbon, Scotch and Beer” is in D. “Sweet Little Lady” is in D. There’s a lot of them. More than I can mention.
There’s been some players over the years that have delved into it but you’re one of the last guys that uses open tunings live.
Well, that was standard. You’re going back 40, 50 years here. It was standard in 1970-’71. Someone in the band played a slide guitar. John Kaye played it in Steppenwolf. Brian Jones and Keith Richards. Everybody played it. It was just standard to me. I didn’t think twice about it. If you’re going to be in a rock band, you’ve gotta play some slide guitar. Canned Heat, too. I mean, Elvin Bishop is a genius at playing slide guitar in closed [standard] tuning. You can talk about playing guitar in open tuning, but standard tuning—very difficult to do, and Elvin Bishop is one of the few who could pull that off. Jeff Beck’s another one.
I saw video of you playing with Elvin Bishop. It was mesmerizing watching him play slide.
He’s one of the best, if not the best.
Do you still play with him sometimes? Do you cross paths much?
I’ve known him for over 30 years.
Do you get to tour on the same stage every once in a while?
Oh, yeah. We’ve toured together, played shows. Done a lot of work with Elvin.
How about Brian Setzer? How did this co-headlining tour go earlier this year?
I have no complaints.
That must have been an experience for the fans.
They seemed to be pleased, yes.
Do you remember exactly when the inspiration hit for “Bad to the Bone,” or is that lost in time?
Not really. I knew one thing for sure—we needed a signature song, other than doing covers of Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker for the rest of my life, if we were going to make a mark. And it was a catchy title. I knew someone was eventually going to write a song with that title to it, so I figured it might as well be me. And we were already fooling around with that arrangement. We really had that thing down. I wanted to get some exotic lyrics in there of tongue-in-cheek-type things. I was always a fan of the lyrics Bo Diddley used, Rolling Stones with “Jumping Jack Flash,” things like that. I wanted it to be a pseudo-masculine macho thing. All of those elements I was thinking about, so it was a concentrated effort for a couple of months to get that thing together.
How long is this tour your on now? Is it going to last until Christmas break?
No, we’re off and on until October.
There must be a great feeling among the band members about having gone on for so long. You’re still doing it, still successful.
Well, I’m going to knock on wood and bite my tongue regarding all that stuff. Anything that is good is going to be successful and it’s going to last.
Do you feel fortunate that the music industry has shifted from making money off recordings to making money from touring?
No I’m very irritated about it (laughs). Of course, that’s the whole focus of getting started, that you can continue as a live performer. I mean, probably after 1975, B.B. King and Ray Charles never had to make another record for the rest of their lives. Their legacy was intact. Promoters could always make money off them regardless if they had a record out, and they had a fan base that would go see them regardless of whether they had new material.
That definitely seems to be the case for you.
I mean, do you need a new Stones record to go see them? Do you need a new record from John Fogerty to go see him? See what I’m saying?
Yeah. You don’t need a new George Thorogood record to go see him live.
It would just be “Bad to the Bone, Part 11.”